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Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War (1936-8) saw the birth of modern war photography with work being undertaken both by civilian reporters and by military photographers attached to army units.  The introduction of small 35m cameras, notably the Leica, and fast shutter speeds allowed unstaged images at the heart of the action whilst there was equal concern for the social impact of the war.  A new outlet for the pictures came with the rise of the photo magazines of the 1930s such as Life and Vu.


The Republican government  commissioned the Catalan photo-journalist Agusti Centelles and the Hungarian Kati Deutsch (nee Horna) to document the war.  The images of Centelles  at least equal those of the more famous Robert Capa in both technical and artistic quality but also have an extraordinary intimacy with the subject as a native camarada. The work includes photographs from the front, uncompromising scenes of civilian casualties and a particularly chilling shot of small boys playing at being an execution squad.   His work remained hidden until after the fall of Franco.   Kati Horna is even less well known.  She was a childhood friend of Robert Capa and photographed the Anarchist  militias and  particularly the lives of ordinary people affected by the war.


Some photographers were attached to army units. The 15th International Brigade, which included the British Battalion, had its own small photographic unit with a mobile laboratory. The team consisted of Sgt Harry Randall as Chief Photographer, with Ben Katine and Tony Drossel as Photographers and William Oderaka as lab technician. Their task was not to take dramatic action shots (more the province of the news media photographers) but rather to document the everyday life of the Brigade. Other volunteers within the brigade  also took photographs (notably Vladimir Stefanovich) but the frequency with which the Brigade were forced to retreat and lost all of their equipment means that it was difficult to preserve their negatives. Remarkably, Sam Walters (a volunteer withthe Lincoln Battalion) did not develop one film for fifty years - because it contained images of the death of a comrade. The British 'Aid For Spain' organisation also commissioned Vera Elkan to document the training of the International Brigades between December 1936 and January 1937. Within the Spanish units, Julio Souza Fernandez and Faustino del Castillo Cubillo of the Mayo Collective both served as photographers to their brigade newspapers.

A large number of civilian photographers covered the war for major news photo agencies and magazines. Here the editors were looking for dramatic images that would encapsulate a story or present a particular vision of the conflict. Many of the photographers saw themselves as part of the anti-fascist crusade rather than disinteredted reporters. For the first time in warfare, photography was used to both reinforce and to shape puiblic opinion. The best known are the foreign photographers such Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, David ('Chim') Seymour who had contracts with international magazines. Gerda Taro was killed during the war; Capa and Seymour went on to found the Magnum Photo Agency. Less well known  are the Spanish photo-journalists such as Paco and Candido Souza Fernandez from the Mayo Collective who worked for Spanish newspapers. They did not have the same international exposure during the war and their work was suppressed under the Franco regime.

The notes above refer to the photographers reporting the war from the republican perspective. Those reporters covering the war from the Nationalist side were subject to much more stringent censorship. One reporter was executed and others were imprisoned or otherwise intimidated. In particular they were not allowed to report the scenes of the mass executions of republican prisoners.


Tom Beck, David Seymour (Chim), Phaidon, 2005
Caroline Brothers, War and Photography, Routledge, 1997
Agusti Centelles, Agusti Centelles: Photobolsillo, La Fabrica, 2010
Vera Elkan, Images on-line via the Imperial War Museum website
J.M.S. Esparza, Elrectanguloenlamano, 2011
Kati Horna, Fotografias de la Guerra Civil Espanola 1937-8, Salamanca, Ministerio de Cultura, 1992
Kati Horna, Online Exhibition, Spanish Ministry of Culture
Cary Nelson, The Aura Of The Cause: a photo album for North American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, ALBA, 1997
I. Schaber, R. Whelan and K. Lubben (eds),  Gerda Taro, ICP/Steidl, 2007
Spanish Embassy, Work and War in Spain, London, 1937 and 1938
Richard Whelan, This Is War: Robert Capa at work, ICP/Steidl, 2007
Cynthia Young and David Balsells, The Mexican Suitcase: the legendary Spanish Civil War negatives of Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour, Steidl, 2010

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